Challenging Headlines for Higher Education Mean “Time to Act” for Many Institutions

John W. Dysart, President
The Dysart Group

These are trying times for many colleges and universities.  The spate of headlines regarding retrenchment and closings in recent years is alarming.  Pressure is being felt by public institutions, religious-affiliated colleges, Historically Black Colleges and Universities and myriad private schools.  Media headlines tell the story:

Bacone College in Oklahoma is Closing

Troubles at Piedmont Technical College

Mergers Recommended for Pennsylvania Public Colleges

Atlantic Union College to Close

Mount Ida College Closes

Enrollment at New Mexico’s Public Colleges Drops 5%

Concordia College in Alabama to Close

Arkansas Baptist College Continues Financial Problems

St. Gregory’s in Oklahoma Closes

Memphis College of Art Closes

Grace University in Nebraska Announces It Will Close

Saint Joseph’s College in Indiana Suspends Operations

Wheelock College Plans Merger

Holy Cross College Faces Financial Crisis

Pillsbury Baptist College Closes

Golden Valley Lutheran College Closes

Alliance College Closes

Marian Court College Closes

Burlington College shuts down

Dowling College Closes

Saint Catharine College Closes

Marygrove College Shuts down Its Undergraduate Programs

College of St. Joseph in Vermont Considers Closing

Marylhurst U to Close Amid Shrinking Enrollment

University of Missouri-Columbia Plans to Close 12 Graduate Programs

The fact that many colleges are struggling to maintain enrollment is not particularly surprising given the challenging demographic trends.  Prices are rising, federal financial aid remains stagnant, states are cutting subsidies and grant allocations and the economy is improving.  The market conditions have certainly contributed to the spate of closings, program cuts, mergers and retrenchment.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that while some colleges and universities are faced with declining enrollments and revenues, others are actually thriving under the same market forces.  If you find that your institution is among the schools at risk, it is time to take some bold steps to ensure survival.

The first step is to admit your institution faces challenges that are likely to impact the quality of your offerings and long-term viability.  Too many administrators wait for market or demographic changes to solve their issues.  Understand that it is unlikely that outside forces are going to improve your enrollment and revenue.

Take a hard look at your current recruitment operation and consider serious changes.  Making minor adjustments along the margins is not going to be enough.  Consider implementing new initiatives at each stage of the funnel:

  • What is the plan to increase the number of viable inquiries? Are your current inquiry sources actually producing applications, acceptances and enrollments?
  • Outline specific plans to increase the number of admission applicants.
  • Examine your application completion rates. If fewer than 70% of your admission applicants complete their folders, you have communication problems and may not be holding your professional staff accountable.
  • What else can you be doing to encourage accepted applicants to enroll?

Take a hard look at your financial aid process.

  • Does your process ensure that 80% of returning students are packaged by the end of the Spring term?
  • Did you successfully encourage the majority of your admission applicants to apply for financial aid?
  • Have you dedicated sufficient institutional resources to financial aid?

Appoint an institutional task force to review all current recruitment and financial aid tactics and charge the team with producing a series of new initiatives to grow enrollment and increase net revenue.  Work with the Board of Trustees to identify additional financial resources to fund new initiatives.  Speak with colleagues at other colleges and universities to garner ideas.  Consider bringing in a qualified consultant to assist with the implementation of a new plan.

There are no guarantees that revamping your recruitment and financial operations will be successful.  But if your college or university is in trouble, it is worse to be among the institutions unwilling to consider bold action until it is too late.